OTTAWA — The federal government plans to deepen Canada’s involvement in Mali by sending up to 20 police officers and investing millions of dollars in the coming years to help train local security forces in the destitute West African nation.
The latest initiatives were revealed Thursday, as the first Canadian Forces helicopter and another group of military personnel headed across the Atlantic to take up their roles in what’s come to be known as the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission.
Canada has already committed a total of eight helicopters and 250 service members for the next 12 months to provide medical evacuations and other support to the UN in Mali, which has been riven by conflict and instability since 2012.
The Canadians are expected to officially take over from the current German and Belgian helicopter contingent next week; as of Aug. 1, they will begin flying missions from a dusty UN base in the northern city of Gao.
But senior officials who briefed reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity said the government is also in talks with the UN and European Union about sending Canadian police officers, who will train Malian counterparts to better provide law and order to the country.
One of the main complaints about the Malian security forces is that they are understrength and stretched thin, meaning they have been hard-pressed to extend their reach into much of the country — especially those areas where fighting over smuggling routes is prevalent.
The RCMP, along with officials from Public Safety Canada, Global Affairs Canada and the Surete du Quebec, visited Mali last month to take a closer look at the work that is underway and how Canada can contribute.
The government is now waiting for the UN and EU to lay out the number and type of officers that they want Canada to send, said one official, adding: “Obviously, and very importantly, we need to also determine the level of risk that we’re willing to undertake.
“The primary responsibility is always to ensure the duty of care of our Canadian police officers who we deploy to peace operations, so we’ll need to come to ground on where we stand there.”
At the same time, a second official said Canada has contributed about $40 million since 2010 toward counter-terrorism training in Mali, which has seen Islamic extremist groups stoke internal tensions in the country and target local and UN forces for attacks.
Those investments are set to continue, with about $10 million per year earmarked for more such training, the second official said, “and we anticipate going forward that, of course, Mali will be a beneficiary of a good proportion of that funding.”
Yet one of the challenges in deepening ties with the Malian security forces has been concerns about human-rights abuses, with the government in Bamako confirming last month that the military killed at least 25 civilians and buried them in a mass grave.
Louis Verret, Canada’s ambassador to Mali, was among those who condemned the extra-judicial killings, but told The Canadian Press in a recent interview that he was heartened by the fact the government took responsibility and promised to take action.
That didn’t keep the UN’s independent expert on human rights in Mali, Alioune Tine, from flagging his concerns earlier this week about the growing number of human-rights violations by the Malian military and calling for an immediate, independent investigation.
Mali has been riven by conflict and strife since a rebellion in the north and a coup in the capital in 2012 threw the country into turmoil, which has been exacerbated in recent years by poverty, drought and an influx of Islamic jihadists.
The Canadian military helicopters are expected to provide medical evacuations to injured peacekeepers across the country over the next year as well as fly blue helmets and supplies to different locations when needed.
One senior official confirmed Thursday that the Canadians, who are expected to have limited contact with locals or the Malian military, could also be called upon to provide occasional support to a five-country counter-terror force operating in the country.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press